Creationism Then & Now

Do you read Ted Davis? For folks interested in the creation/evolution debates, Professor Davis has long produced essential historical analyses of the various voices of creationism in all their befuddling complexity. I was reading one of Professor Davis’ essays on the Biologos Forum recently and it raised some perennial questions: Can we compare the dissenting science of today’s creationists to the scientific ideas of long ago? Can today’s creationists claim a long legacy of prestigious scientific antecedents?

Cutting-edge creation science, c. 1827

Cutting-edge creation science, c. 1827

Davis is writing these days about science and creationism in antebellum America. In this post, he explains the school of “Scriptural Geology” that attracted religious scientists in the early 1800s. Scholars such as Princeton Seminary’s Samuel Miller and Anglican minister George Bugg rebutted new(ish) ideas of an ancient earth.

Professor Davis pointed out the remarkable similarities of their 19th-century arguments with the 21st-century arguments of today’s young-earth creationists. As Davis put it,

Readers familiar with Henry Morris or Ken Ham will find many of their ideas, expressed in substantially the same ways and for the same reasons, in the pages of Bugg’s book.

Now, Professor Davis would be the last person to ignore historical context or to misunderstand the historical changes that have wracked the world of creationist scientists. Yet his comparison to the Scriptural Geologists to Answers in Genesis or the Institute for Creation Research points out the radical changes that have taken place in the realms of creationism and science.

In the 1820s, discussions of the age of the earth still had some fading legitimacy among mainstream scientists. Even as late as the 1920s, when American politicians such as William Jennings Bryan insisted that “Darwinism” was losing scientific prestige, their claims made some sense. In the 1920s, for example, mainstream scientists had not yet cobbled together the modern evolutionary synthesis. They had not yet figured out how to reconcile the mechanism of natural selection with the maintenance of beneficial mutations.

As I describe in my upcoming book, mainstream science has changed enormously over the course of the twentieth century. Positions that made some scientific sense in 1827, or 1927, lost those claims as the 20th century progressed.

As an obvious result, there yawns an enormous gulf between the work of George Bugg and that of Ken Ham or Henry Morris. Today’s young-earth creationists are forced to take the role of utter scientific outsiders. They are forced to dismiss the entirety of mainstream evolutionary science as deluded.

Of course, as Professor Davis explains, earlier “creationists” such as Miller and Bugg also felt like scientific outsiders. But their position was radically different. Saying nearly the exact same thing, as always, can mean very different things, depending on when one says them.


Holiday Reading List

Ho ho ho and all that. Like it or not, the holidays are upon us. For you nerds out there who, like me, view such breaks as a chance to catch up on our nerdy reading, I’ll share my plans for the next ten days.

Who's got time for presents?

Who’s got time for presents?

What are you reading these (holi)days?


I’ve got three books on my desk. One new, one old, and one in the middle. First, I’m excited to read Christopher Rios’s After the Monkey Trial: Evangelical Scientists and a New Creationism (2014). Rios looks at the emergence of a network of creationist scientists after the 1920s. Next, I’ll be taking another whack at Virginia Brereton’s Training God’s Army: The American Bible School, 1880-1940 (1990). Over the years, I’ve read this book several times. As Brereton puts it in her introduction,

The fundamentalist movement was decidedly an educational movement and most fundamentalists were educators; education was implicit in their overriding objective, which was the evangelization of America and the world. To understand fundamentalists, then, it is absolutely necessary to examine their educational efforts.

Hear, hear! This time around, I’m reading it with an eye to my new book about evangelical higher education between 1920-1980. Last but not least, I want to spend some time with John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice (1971). This is one that I read many years ago as an undergraduate. For so long now I’ve been reading conservative writers and pundits, I feel a need to re-connect with this fundamental statement of liberal ethics.

Top of my stack...

Top of my stack…


I’ve been putting off Ted Davis’s series at the BioLogos Forum for too long. Davis is the one of the best historians out there for those of us interested in creationism and evolution. His series, “Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Evolution” ran through the summer into this past fall. I meant to read them as they came out, but as usual I fell behind. Thanks to these holidays, I’ll finally take time to read them more carefully.

There have been a couple of longish articles recently about evangelical religion and higher education that I didn’t have time to read yet. In The Atlantic, Laura Turner noted the activism at evangelical colleges about the killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. I have high hopes that Turner does not assume that evangelical college students have never engaged in this sort of social activism before. As I’m discovering in my current research, there is a strong tradition at Christian colleges of left-leaning student activism.

Next up, an article that is doubly interesting for anyone who wants to understand evangelical higher education. Esmerelda Sanchez writes in Christianity Today about the experiences of Latina Pentecostals in higher ed. I’ve only read the teaser so far, but it looks as if Sanchez argues that as women, as Latinas, and as Pentecostals, those like her have faced special hurdles in the world of American higher education.


At the far edge of nerdy, I’m looking forward to reading a newly completed dissertation. Just completed at the University of Delaware is Kevin Currie-Knight’s From Laissez-Faire to Vouchers: An Intellectual History of Market Libertarian Thought on Education in Twentieth-Century America. Aside from the peerless Milton Gaither, historians have not taken a close enough look at the libertarian tradition in educational thought in US history. I’m hoping Currie-Knight’s work addresses some key issues of the meanings of markets in the imaginations of ed reformers. For those who don’t have access to a university library, you can always get easy access to dissertations like this at your local public library. Most public libraries have access to interlibrary-loan services, and they can often get you a pdf of any dissertation lickety-split.

That’s my plan. As usual, I won’t be likely to get to all of this in the next week. I’ll try to read all I can as I breeze through the holidays, packed full of candy canes and booze.

What are YOU reading as we say goodbye to 2014?

Take a Trip to a Science Museum with a Creationist

“See, fossils!  That’s science.”  So says Megan Fox, self-identified creationist homeschool mom, Tea Partyer, blogger, and Latest YouTube Sensation.

We’ve taken plenty of museum trips here at ILBYGTH: to the Institute for Creation Research’s museum in San Diego, to the big Creation Museum in Kentucky, and even to a medley of creation and mainstream science museums.  Now there is a new option: Take a trip to Chicago’s Field Museum with Megan Fox.  In this half-hour video, Fox explains all the problems with mainstream science.

Plenty of commentators have blitzed Mrs. Fox with insults.  More interesting will be an attempt for those of us outside the creationist community to find out what this creationist thinks about mainstream science.

I’m no creationist-basher, but Mrs. Fox does seem to have an unpleasantly loud and in-my-face personality.  Predictably, bloggers have teed off on her “expose” of mainstream science at the Field Museum. Atheist PZ Myers called Fox “Smug and Stupid.” At Dangerous Minds, she was called a “blithering idiot,” and worse.

I would imagine that many of the intelligent creationists out there wouldn’t have chosen Fox as their ideal spokesperson. But what if we watch her museum tour as a chance to learn more about her creationist vision of science? Historians have worked hard—maybe too hard—to explain the philosophical underpinnings of creationist and Protestant fundamentalist science.

Many agree with George Marsden, who has argued that at heart, fundamentalist science hearkens back to the scientific principles laid down in the 1600s by Francis Bacon. As Marsden wrote in Fundamentalism and American Culture (2006 edition, pg. 59):

the role of the interpreter, according to the same Baconian assumptions, was not to impose hypotheses or theories, but to reach conclusions on the basis of careful classification and generalization alone.

Other historians have agreed. Mark Noll, for example, argued in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind (pg. 197),

Creationists regularly reaffirm the principles of Baconian science: no speculation without direct empirical proof, no deductions from speculative principles, no science without extensive empirical evidence.

Perhaps the most careful student of conservative Protestant encounters with mainstream science, Jon Roberts, argued similarly in his 1988 book Darwinism and the Divine in America (pp. 41-42 of that first edition from the University of Wisconsin Press),

Nonscientists were also enamored of the Baconian method, for they believed that it was the surest route to the certainty they associated with science. Asa Mahan, a prominent philosopher who served as the first president of Oberlin College, presented in 1872 a typical statement of the prevailing view within the American Protestant intellectual community: ‘Science is knowledge systematized. Into a scientific process, nothing but what is absolutely known can enter.’

Is this what Megan Fox is doing? More interestingly, which term fits Fox better: “blithering idiot” or “Baconian loudmouth”?

I think a better term for Fox’s scientific vision is one used by historian Ted Davis. Though the roots of Fox’s attitude toward proper science may have originated in Baconian principles, it seems misleading to suggest that Fox selected a Baconian framework out of thin air. Like most of us, Fox’s ideas of proper science seem to come from a mix of sources, some of them only dimly understood.

So, instead of calling Fox “Baconian,” I think we should use Davis’s label of “folk science.” As Davis explains, the term came from Jerome Ravetz, Scientific Knowledge and Its Social Problems (1971).

Of course, it is not only creationists who practice “folk science.” As Dan Kahan argues, there is not much daylight between creationists and non-creationists when it comes to actual knowledge about evolution. Most of us have only the vaguest grasp on the real meanings and implications of mainstream science. Unlike Mrs. Fox, however, most of us are willing to learn mainstream science when we go to the Field Museum, not try to pit our folk-ish understandings against the efforts of mainstream science educators.